Do video games overuse the power fantasy?
Video games are amazing. They can do just about anything they set their minds to. Yet despite all that potential, most games keep going back to the same exact narrative and mechanical arc over and over again. It’s like that Drake song is stuck on repeat.Here’s out it usually plays out– you start from the bottom, unable to do anything other than look and maybe move around a little bit.
From there on out, it’s a skyrocket to the moon. You’re given upgrades, weapons, collectibles, achievements, shields, armor, power-ups, and so on. Making players feel powerful through leveling up has become synonymous with conventional game progression, and with good reason. The empowerment narrative is a perfect cheat sheet for fun, absorbing play. I mean, I certainly enjoy it. Those conventions help induce what psychologists call “flow,” which is that pumped-up feeling you get when you’re doing something that’s really hard but you’re also good at it.
Leveling up gives positive feedback to the player and it helps designers strike a perfect balance between challenge and ability. But here’s the thing– the power fantasy is, well, exactly that, a fantasy. Most of the time, you’re not really getting better at the game. The game is just getting made easier for you to win.
This artificial empowerment is everywhere, like in “Call of Duty‘s” leveling-up system or “God of War‘s” epic quick time event takedowns, and even “Zelda‘s” dungeon items. You might feel like you’re mastering the game and conquering the world by playing more, but instead you’re being handed things that just make the game more accessible, be it a gun, a magic takedown button, or a grapple hook.
Nowadays, you don’t even have to spend time playing to get that false sense of empowerment. The pay-to-win business model throws out the pretense of skill altogether, giving players the option to just pay more to get more powerful. As designer Clint Hocking pointed out to us, the conventions of leveling up have little to do with player skill. They’re about linear progression and new toys that keep players coming back for more. And there’s a point where leveling up isn’t even all that helpful to designers either, because most of the time, it turns into an arms race against the player.
Each new toy needs a counterbalance to maintain the appearance of difficulty. So you end up with these incredibly convoluted systems like these RPGs that you need, like, a Ph.D. to understand. And it’s not just convoluted systems either. Game narratives have to do all sorts of back flips to justify the power fantasy. Think of “Metroid” and all those times you rolled your eyes because Samus’ suit conveniently malfunction or required someone else’s permission in order to activate and upgrade.
Power fantasy narratives tend to be unsustainable in a lot of different ways because, typically, experience points are gained through combat, which means these narratives have to try and figure out ways to justify all that murder you’re being rewarded for. But at best, power fantasy video games briefly address this fact, giving the protagonist a vague revenge story or some other flimsy motivation. And frankly, the heroic mass murderer story is just starting to lose a little bit of its spark. And designers seemed to be scrambling and failing to liven it up, because there’s only so many titans I can dismember before the pain Kratos supposedly feels over his family just starts sounding a little disingenuous. I will have my revenge! And no matter how many times “Watch Dogs” tells me that my actions are made righteous by my niece’s death, I’m just not buying it.
And let’s not forget, no matter who you are in a power fantasy, from a demigod to a hacker, even death itself isn’t enough to stop you. Usually, failing is an essential part of any game system, but because it interrupts the progression of a power fantasy, death tends to be reduced to a 10-second setback at most. Unless you’re playing exceptions to the rule, of course, like “Dark Souls” or “Bloodborne” or a roguelike. But generally speaking, death is like a slap on the wrist in most games– only, it’s Superman’s wrists and he didn’t even notice or feel it or care. We are so trumped up on power that we ostensibly become immortal. Mistakes becomes laughable both narratively and mechanically, and the whole thing turns into an ego-stroking conquest. It’s just, like, so easy. I’m just, like, firing arrows at him and he’s not even moving.
But as long as power fantasies dominate our mechanics, they’ll keep dominating all of our stories too and we’ll keep playing the same good guy with a gun with a chip on his shoulder and a kidnapped niece and, I don’t know, a wife to avenge. Victoria. Where is she? Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of room for good power fantasies in games. And like we said before, they can be fun. But as games mature, designers are challenging themselves and players to think outside the typical leveling-up convention. Recently, horror games have taken to the disempowerment narrative. Titles like “Outlast“, “Amnesia,” and “Among the Sleep” ramp up terror by keeping players defenseless the entire game. “Papers, Please” takes the power out of mastering a game system by making players just another cog in the machine. Even “Wolfenstein,” which is there at the genesis of video game power fantasies, has learned some new tricks, because you still get tons of cool guns and upgrades, but narratively, “Wolfenstein” is about losing a war and everything you love.
“Journey” got rid of leveling up altogether, creating a story that weaved empowerment and disempowerment seamlessly together. Other games like “The Last of Us” opt to keep the power fantasy while completely twisting our expectation. At first, you’re a weakened little girl with no abilities, before quickly becoming her much more capable father. But later on, “The Last of Us” flips the weakened little girl trope on its head by weakening Joel and handing controls over to Ellie. It uses the power fantasy to make us rethink who we see as defenseless and who we see as powerful. Revisiting these conventions has already brought us some of the best games in recent history and I, for one, am excited to see how designers will continue to surprise us and tell stories that go beyond just our egos. So what do you think? Should games think outside the power fantasy and leveling up? Hash it out the comments and if you like what you saw, please subscribe.
I’ll see you next week. Last week, we talked about food and why it’s everywhere in games. Let’s see what you had to say. GloppyCSP tended to treat the food in “Skyrim” based on how quickly it would spoil. That is, eat the fresh stuff quickly and store longer life things. That brings up a really interesting food mechanic that we didn’t talk about in the episode, which is spoilage. In games like “Skyrim,” you have to eat the food that spoils the fastest first. So eating is like the original resource management sim– I guess until they figure out what preservatives are. Zachary Lusby and many others mentioned how certain games introduced them to foods from cultures outside of their own. This goes back to something we touched on in the episode about how many cultural values are instilled in what and how we eat. For example, I’m half Mexican. I don’t speak Spanish, unfortunately. I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, which is a pity. But one way that Mexican culture was passed on to me was through food. And games are the same way.
They cross cultural boundaries very, very easily compared to other mediums. And thanks for the note about the shirt. It came from my aunt. She got it for me for Christmas a couple years ago. She’ll be very pleased that you like it so much. Kate Berger mentions how food has evolved over the history of “The Sims.” She points out “Sims 3” has really evolved into a whole food system where you can grow your own or learn to cook or be a vegetarian. This is one of the things I talked about the episode, where food can be a reflection of the values in the game itself.
“The Sims” prides itself on personalization and food is just another way that you can express yourself. I’d also add that “The Sims” is also one of the few games that has gameplay that involves going to the restroom, so, I don’t know, maybe diet will always be a part that game. George Cataloni hates thinking about food and eats the same thing every single day because he just wants to get proper nutrition into his body as efficiently as possible so that, in his words, he “can go back to doing more interesting things.” Well, that’s one way to think about it, I suppose, but food is more than just putting stuff into your body.
I feel like it’s about culture, it’s about social expression, doing things with other people. If you like to cook, for example, that process has creativity built into it. But I guess you could just drink Soylent every single day and just get all of the vital nutrients you need, but I feel like you’d be missing out.